Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Learning from cheating

The cheating scandal in Atlanta is an important event to learn from. As a solutions focused parent and teacher, I see all problems not as a time for punitive measures but as teachable moments.

Teachable moments are by definition acts of working with people - that's why we must resist simply doing things to people via punishment. The conventional wisdom around punishing cheaters is as tempting as it is distracting. After all, there's a big difference between preventing students from being able to cheat and focusing on why they wanted to cheat in the first place. The former may feel productive, but only the latter is productive.

Cheating is rarely solved by simply more rules and regulations followed by harsher reinforcements. We must refrain from attributing the problem of cheating solely on the cheaters themselves. The teachable moment here can be found in thoughtfully reflecting upon the circumstances and environments that the cheaters were immersed in when they cheated. The real question here is not "How will the cheaters be punished?", but instead "Why did the cheaters cheat?"

Alfie Kohn writes in his article Who's Cheating Whom?:

One major cause of cheating, then, is an academic environment in which students feel pressured to improve their performance even if doing so involves methods that they, themselves, regard as unethical. But when you look carefully at the research that confirms this discovery, you begin to notice that the worst environments are those in which the pressure is experienced in terms of one’s standing relative to others.
Kohn goes on to describe a grocery list of ways to create an environment ripe with cheating. Cheating is more common when:

  • teachers have little to no relationship or connections with their students
  • teachers care care more about other things than their students
  • students experience their learning as boring, irrelevant, or overwhelming
  • learning is prescribed rigidly in a prefabricated curriculum
  • students perceive that the ultimate goal of learning is to get good grades
  • there is an emphasis on honor rolls and other incentives to heighten the salience of grades
  • parents offer financial inducements for academic success
  • schools value product more than process, results more than discovery and achievement more than learning
  • students are led to focus more on how well they're learning than what they're learning
  • teachers emphasize good grades, high test scores and being smart
  • competition is valued over collaboration

Alternatively, Kohn explains that cheating is far less common when:

  • learning is genuinely engaging and meaningful to the students
  • exploring ideas remains a priority over a single-minded emphasis on rigor
  • students' opinions are respected and welcomed in a democratic classroom
  • a disposition to finding out about the world is nourished
  • teachers made it clear to kids that the point of school is to enjoy learning and that understanding mattered more than memorizing and when mistakes were accepted as a natural result of exploration.

When people are encouraged to do whatever it takes to achieve, we shouldn't be surprised when they do whatever it takes (read: cheat). If school is about performance over process and a premium is placed on results, then cheating makes perfect sense; after all, if all you need is to look smart, then cheating can get you there. However, if real learning is your objective, then cheating suddenly makes very little sense. Where cheating might make you look smart, it will never actually make you smarter.

Devising and implementing more rigorous punishments for cheaters is the equivalent to shutting the barn door after the horses have all run out - in other words, it's a massive exercise in missing the point.

When we stop to reflect upon why cheaters cheat, we dedicate ourselves to understanding that cheating has less to do with the characteristics of individual cheaters and more to do with the priorities of schools and practices of educators. In fact, seeing cheating as symptom of a larger systemic problem may the be the only hope we have of reducing the frequency of cheating.

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